Heart of the City Archives

Jo Schuman Silver at Savoy Tivoli.

Looking for love at Green and Columbus
by Hank Donat

Dateline: North Beach. If I lost my mind, my world might look something like Beach Blanket Babylon, here at Club Fugazi in the heart of North Beach.

Beach Blanket, Steve Silver's whirlwind of cultural references, characters, songs, celebrity cameos, humor, and love of love and San Francisco celebrates its 30th anniversary performances next month. Yes, Snow White has gone all over the world looking for a prince and found him in her own backyard eight times a week for three decades.

The scene in front of Club Fugazi in the Little City on this sunny Thursday is typical. Lawrence Ferlinghetti heads into Capp's Corner with a companion. Alan Coe mans his parking lot. Across the street, a pair of elderly women, dressed in black, leaves the Green Street Mortuary.

Silver died in 1995, leaving his wife Jo Schuman Silver behind the wheel of Beach Blanket Babylon. In 1998, the New York Times said that Mrs. Silver had carried on as though nothing changed. The show was still the sweet fruit of Mr. Silver's imagination. The Times would be happy to know that it remains so.

Time melts away as Mrs. Silver revisits the roots of the show on a walk through the neighborhood. "Steve Silver started Beach Blanket Babylon on Union Street in the summer of '73 with some friends," she recalled as we left Fugazi along with Christy McIntosh, the newest Snow White in the cast.

Mrs. Silver continues, "They came out of the Coffee Canata and there was a guy playing a guitar and making money. Steve said, 'I have some costumes. Let's go back to my house and come back here and see if we can make some money.' Steve was dressed as a Christmas tree; Roberta Bleiweiss was a Santa Claus; her sister Nancy was Carmen Miranda. And they made $25."

Hoping to make enough money to play Hollywood and Vine, the performers got a cult following doing the act on Polk Street. A big break came when Michael Douglas put them in his hit cop show Streets of San Francisco.

Next, Mr. Silver made a deal to split the door with Fred Kuh of Savoy Tivoli in the early part of 1974 and after a couple of earlier test nights, the door opened on Beach Blanket Babylon on June 7, 1974. Protocol Chief Charlotte Shultz, then Charlotte Mailliard and a friend of Mr. Silver, had arranged to "pack the place with swells," says Mrs. Silver.

As we approach the Tivoli on Grant Avenue, Mrs. Silver continues, "And that was it - it all started right here at the Savoy Tivoli and it sold out every night for 30 years since that night."

At that, McIntosh gasps. To look at her, tall and blonde, you wouldn't think of Snow White. But McIntosh is starting her third year in the role for which she lobbied heavily after initially being cast as a Pineapple Princess. Her outlook and energy, like the rest of her by the time the curtain rises, is all Snow.

"It's an honor to be in this show because there's a sense of tradition," McIntosh says, "I love talking with people like Val [Diamond] and Renee [Lubin] who've been here for a long time. It's universally known. I have friends who were in this show and they've gone to New York. Everyone who sees Beach Blanket Babylon on their resumes says, 'I love that show!'"

"It's a very big responsibility," says Mrs. Silver, "When [director] Kenny Mazlow and I took it over in 1995 I was like a lunatic for details and keeping it going because if I ever closed Steve Silver's show I'd kill myself."

Mrs. Silver says a sense of responsibility to the city is also never far from her mind. "The city takes this show very, very seriously," she says. Pot, meet kettle.

We wend our way through the streets of North Beach, past the North Beach Restaurant on Stockton Street. "We ate dinner here almost every night," says Mrs. Silver, "When Steve would get on a kick it would be the same place every night with the same dinner because he was a creature of habit. We love [owner] Lorenzo Petroni."

Mrs. Silver occasionally talks about her late husband in the present tense, something the Times noted of her in 1998. "And we always wind up at Tosca," she says.

Tosca owner Jeannette Etheridge brought Rudolph Nureyev to one of the first Beach Blanket shows at Savoy Tivoli in 1974.

We cross back to the block of Green Street between Columbus and Powell that was renamed Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd. in 1996. "It was a big deal for us when they changed the name of the street," says Mrs. Silver. "We had Steve Silver Day here. Herb Caen was sick at the time but he came to the show and played drums for our cast. That was cool."

For more cool, Mrs. Silver has arranged to have Academy Award-winner Olympia Dukakis reprise her television role as Mrs. Madrigal from Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City in Beach Blanket's anniversary show on June 7. "It's so great to have Olympia," says Mrs. Silver, "because Armistead is so clever and he wrote one of the first Beach Blanket Babylon shows." Beach Blanket Babylon appears in the Tales when Mrs. Madrigal takes Mona Ramsey out to celebrate their anniversary as tenant and pot-smoking landlady.

Mrs. Silver sums up 30 years. "I think this show captures the spirit of San Francisco in its humor, in its irreverence, in its topicality - because everybody in San Francisco just knows it all and they know how to have a good time. They love beautiful looking things and great songs. It's a very San Francisco show in its exuberance but it's also been a show for everyone from all over the world now for 30 years. That's what Steve Silver created more than anything, was something so people can have fun. That's why it's the best show there is."

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Copyright 2004 Hank Donat
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